Your digital footprint is akin to breadcrumbs you leave behind as you traverse the Internet, a record of where you’ve visited and what you’ve done there. Though it can have some benefits, it also reveals a lot of personal information about you – and bad actors can use that information to nefarious ends. Here’s how to manage and protect your digital footprint to showcase your best attributes and avoid falling victim to cybercriminals.
What is a digital footprint?
A good digital footprint definition is “a record of your online activity and information about you collected and published by third-party sites and apps.” It’s sometimes called a “digital shadow” or “electronic footprint,” and occasionally referred to as a “digital fingerprint,” but they all mean the same thing.
Your footprint is compiled not just from your direct activity, but also activities that take place without your knowledge or consent. For example, data brokers collect your information from public records and publish it online.
So, how does a digital footprint work? Nearly everything you do online leaves a trace, and your digital footprint includes information such as:
- Websites you visit (browsing history)
- Social media profiles, posts, comments, and likes
- Your search history
- Emails you send
- Information sent via forms
- Your purchase history
- Online reviews you submit
- Organizations you support
- Your family members
- Biometric data (fingerprints and facial recognition)
- IP addresses
- Your location history
- Streaming history (Netflix, Spotify, etc.)
- Name, address, phone, email, and other contact information
- Images and videos you’ve uploaded (or others have shared)
- Credit card, bank, and other financial data
- Online chats, messages, and forum posts
- Login credentials and PIN numbers
- Credit score
- Social Security number
- Data from device sensors
Companies, organizations, and even criminals collect this information either actively or passively via:
- Browser cookies
- Online forms
- Social media posts and profiles
- Newsletter subscriptions
- App data collection
- Online reviews
- Online shopping data
- Service subscriptions
- Public records
- Viruses and malware
- A data breach
In many cases, your footprint is public (or semi-public, as with social media) and you have little control over where it’s published and how it’s used.
It’s important to note that a digital footprint is inevitable. You can’t have an online life without leaving a single trace, and your footprint has some benefits such as:
- Enabling advertisers to serve relevant ads you’re most likely to be interested in
- Helping you connect with like-minded individuals and businesses
- Getting directions and travel recommendations
- Showcasing your accolades to prospective employers
At the same time, it’s important to understand and manage it because your footprint can jeopardize your privacy and give criminals the means to defraud you.
Why is it important to understand your digital footprint?
More than ever, it’s crucial to be aware of your own digital footprint because this is how others – organizations and people – see your digital you and you want to have better control over your online image. In particular, you want your employer to see the best version of you and you want scammers to see the leanest version of you (with as few personal details as possible). Moreover, it is important to understand how digital footprints are generated to prevent their growth where possible.
Here are five reasons why it’s important to understand your digital footprint and the data trail it leaves:
1. To understand how others see you online, including government agencies, employers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, and strangers. Your footprint is often the first impression prospective employers, college recruiters, and even romantic interests have of you. If you have questionable posts or photos, or if your comments are laced with profanity, spelling and grammatical errors, or references to drugs or alcohol, it could cost you a job, a scholarship, a loan, or a date.
2. To understand why you are seeing certain content and advertising. Think about that annoying ad chasing you from site to site. You’re seeing it because advertisers make inferences about your interests. If you’re seeing ads and content that don’t seem relevant to you – or that you wouldn’t want others to associate with you – it’s fair to wonder what’s in your digital footprint that’s triggering those ads and content.
3. To manage your online presence and protect your reputation. The better you understand your digital footprint and how it’s generated, the more influence you have over what data is collected about you, where it’s published, and who can see it.
4. To protect your privacy. Your digital footprint can expose your search history, the websites you frequent, and the newsletters you subscribe to, lending insights into political and religious affiliations, medical conditions, and other information you’d prefer to keep private.
5. To prevent fraud. Criminals can use digital footprints to piece together personally identifiable information such as your name, address, SSN, financial details, and private photos or videos to steal your identity, gain access to your accounts, make purchases, apply for loans or benefits in your name, blackmail you with embarrassing doxxing threats, cyberstalk you, or sell your data on the dark web.
Consider these statistics:
- 70% of companies use social media to screen job candidates (The Harris Poll)
- Data brokers collect information about you and sell it to anyone who wants it, and there are more than 500 data brokers in the U.S. alone (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse)
All of this underscores the need to be aware of your digital footprint and carefully guard the information you share online to stop others from collecting data about you in the first place.
Passive digital footprints
A passive digital footprint is created without your knowledge or any direct user action, typically behind the scenes. Passive digital footprint examples include:
- Installing cookies that track your Internet browsing history, website visits, location, and IP address
- Social media sites that track your behavior and compile marketing profiles for targeted advertising
- Apps that track your digital activity, locations, and other information
- Data brokers who pull your personal information from public records and then publish it on people-search sites for anyone to view and purchase
Apart from opting out of data broker sites, you have little to no control over passive digital footprints, so it’s important to be careful about which sites you visit and apps you download.
Active digital footprints
An active digital footprint is created with your knowledge when you take an intentional action. Active digital footprint examples include:
- Posting on social media
- Sharing your location with maps and direction apps
- Sending online messages
- Filling out an online form
- Subscribing to newsletters
- Accepting cookies
- Taking online surveys
Internet users have more control over active digital footprints, since you can avoid posting on social media platforms, accepting cookies, and filling out forms.
Digital footprint examples
Here are some common examples of a digital footprint:
- Social media streams: posts, comments, and likes reveal insights into what you think and say, while photos and videos that you and others post can become permanent parts of your digital footprint. Your social presence could cast you in a poor light even if your posts and comments aren’t questionable. For example, if you have spelling or grammatical errors or if someone else posts something negative about you
- Social profiles reveal personal information such as your contact data, location, family members, employers, groups you belong to, and pages you follow
- Dating apps and sites can reveal intimate information about you and what you’re looking for in a romantic partner, photos and videos you don’t want the public to see, your sexual orientation and preferences, your ethnicity and political or religious views, and the contents of chat messages
- Single Sign-On (SSO), where you use your social media account to log into other sites, enables social media companies to share information they’ve collected about you with third-party websites and services – and you do not have control over how those third parties use your information. Even if you revoke access, third-party companies often retain your personal information
- E-commerce websites and shopping apps add to your digital footprint with online shopping information such as your purchase and cart history, contact information, and credit card and other payment data. They can also track and share your information with marketers for ad targeting
- Your purchase history then ends up on major data broker websites such as Axiom, and Transunion which, in turn, sell it to smaller brokers like Whitepages and BeenVerified. These sites add your purchase data to background reports. Subsequently, anyone who buys a report about you can find out your clothes size, what products you frequently order, etc
- Joining loyalty programs and subscribing to coupon sites can reveal information about your income, the types of products you buy, your personal interests, contact data, credit card and banking info, and your overall shopping behavior
- Opening financial accounts, such as credit cards, online banking, and cryptocurrency, can create data points such as credit scores, income, contact info, and personal information. Installing banking and pay apps can also reveal how much money you have, how much debt you have, which services you subscribe to, the restaurants you visit, and your purchase history
- Participating in the stock market and using stock buying and selling apps can lend insights into your investments, your income level, your lifestyle, your banking and financial account information, and your personal data
Health and fitness
- Fitness trackers and online fitness programs can share personal data such as your height and weight, your age and gender, your heart rate, photos, and even lifestyle information such as your workout routine, fitness goals, sleep habits, and calorie intake
- Telehealth and remote healthcare apps can share similar data as well as medical information, including physical and mental health diagnoses, prescriptions, sexual history, pregnancy attempts, and chronic medical conditions
- Consuming content – reading news and blogs, subscribing to newsletters, or downloading a news app – can lend insights into the topics you’re interested in, your political and religious views, medical conditions, relationship status, personal problems you’re experiencing, and your overall lifestyle
- Chats, emails, and texts can include sensitive information and photos you don’t want the public to see, but can become part of your digital footprint
The best strategy is to minimize your digital footprint to control personal data exposure online.
Protecting your digital footprint
Follow these strategies and best practices for managing your digital footprint and controlling your personal information online.
1. View your digital footprint
Start by getting an idea of what’s out there already. You can search for your name and other identifying information on multiple search engines, set Google Alerts for your name, and use Google’s Results About You tool to monitor for personal information. You should also look yourself up on data broker websites to see what personal information about you is publicly available.
2. Opt out of people-search sites
It’s a good idea to opt out of people-search sites. Data brokers contribute to your digital footprint by collecting your data and publishing it without your consent. Then, they compile online profiles about you and sell that information to anyone who wants it. Criminals can purchase your profile and use it to steal your identity, gain access to your accounts, defraud you, or sell it on the dark web to other criminals.
Unfortunately, it’s not quick or easy to remove your personal information from the many people-search sites on the web. Onerep can help. Our service scours 199 data broker and people-search sites and automatically removes your profiles for you. Then, we continually monitor each site to ensure they don’t republish your information. If they do, we begin the automated removal process again.
3. Avoid oversharing
Carefully review your social media presence – Facebook, X, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and others – to make sure there are no posts, comments, or likes that share too much information. Delete old posts and avoid oversharing in the future.
Before you post anything, ask yourself: would you want a prospective employer, admissions counselor, romantic interest – or your mother – to see it? If not, don’t post.
You should also be selective about who you’re “friends” with, as another person’s online activities could reflect on you.
4. Tighten security settings
Tighten up browser settings as well as privacy settings on your mobile device, apps, social media platforms, and online accounts. For example:
- Disable location sharing
- Disable cookies
- Limit who can see your posts
- Opt out of interest-based ads
- Disable social profile search engine indexing
- Block app access to cameras, mics, documents, and photos
- If you use a webcam, cover it when you’re not using it
You should also check terms and privacy policies before installing any apps to avoid those that collect personal data.
5. Use a privacy browser or browse in incognito mode
Use a browser that prioritizes privacy, such as Brave or Duck Duck Go. Alternatively, install an ad blocker and browse in incognito mode to prevent websites from installing cookies and collecting data.
6. Delete unused accounts and apps and unsubscribe from newsletters
Make a list of all your accounts and delete any unused social media and personal accounts, apps, and other websites and unsubscribe from newsletters and financial publications to stop them from collecting data.
7. Use a nonidentifying screenname and a dummy email address
Avoid using your real name on social media site profiles, forums, messaging apps, and other platforms. Instead, create social media accounts using a screenname that’s difficult to associate with your true identity.
You can also set up a throwaway email address for newsletter subscriptions, services you don’t want associated with your online identity, and temporary accounts. You can even create a temporary email address for one-time emails at sites like TempMail.
8. Use virtual credit cards
Virtual credit cards allow you to make online purchases without sharing your financial data. They’re temporary and disposable, and you can set spending limits to prevent hackers from emptying your accounts. Privacy is one company that provides virtual credit cards.
9. Learn to spot common scams
Phishing, smishing, vishing – and now quishing, among other scams, can trick you into sharing sensitive data that becomes part of your digital footprint. Learn to recognize the red flags so you can avoid these scams.
10. Install an antivirus
Install antivirus software on all your devices to prevent spyware, keyloggers, and other malware that can track your online activities and steal information that can be compiled into digital footprints.
11. Use a VPN and encrypted messaging services
A VPN (virtual private network) can disguise your location and hide your IP address, making it more difficult to track your online activity.
Only use encrypted messaging apps, and never share sensitive documents in unencrypted formats. If unencrypted messages, documents, or other digital assets are intercepted, they could become part of your digital footprint.
12. Use 2FA and strong passwords (and change them frequently)
Two-factor authentication and strong passwords remain some of the best protections against having your personally identifiable information leaked online and becoming parts of digital footprints. Be sure to change passwords frequently. You can create strong passwords at sites like Strong Password Generator.
Avoid using Single Sign-On (Google, Facebook, etc.) – essentially, social media credentials connecting to other accounts – to automatically log in to other sites and services. If one of your SSO accounts is compromised, it’s possible all of the accounts that use the shared login could likewise be compromised.
13. Keep software and devices updated
Install software and device updates as they become available, since they often include security patches for outdated software that can help protect your privacy and personal information – and keep it out of digital footprints.
14. Don’t submit personal information and use dummy data
Avoid taking online surveys, joining loyalty programs, and filling out unnecessary forms, and when you do, only input the required information. When possible, use a throwaway email address, phone number, and even a fake name, DOB, and address to avoid associating anything you submit online with your digital footprint.
15. Create a positive digital footprint
So far, our advice has been about how to prevent your information from being added to your digital footprint – but it’s also good to be proactive about creating a positive digital footprint. Share your successes, skills, achievements, and accolades. Post professional photos and create content that you’d be proud for any employer, college recruiter, date, or family member to see. At the same time, think critically about any personal details or photos you share – assess whether they reveal something that can be used by scammers, imposters, and other bad actors.
Your digital footprint represents your online identity and digital reputation, but it can also be used to violate your privacy or expose you to criminal activity. Be proactive about managing it to maintain both your online and offline reputation, protect your privacy, and avoid falling victim to cybercriminals.
Can anyone see your digital footprint?
Yes, anyone can see your digital footprint by searching for your name, social profiles, and other identifying information. Though your digital footprint is scattered across the web, data brokers compile that information into profiles on people-search sites, which sell digital footprints to anyone willing to pay.
How long will your digital footprint be visible?
In many cases, your digital footprint is permanent, so it will be visible forever. That said, it is possible to remove your profile from people-search sites to make it more difficult for others to view your entire digital footprint, and you can delete old social media posts, comments, photos, and videos. However, that doesn’t mean your deleted posts or browser history won’t be archived in a publicly-available database.
What does a bad digital footprint look like?
A bad digital footprint often consists of questionable, embarrassing, compromising, or misinterpreted posts, comments, images, and videos. For example, you might have social media posts laced with profanity, grammatical and spelling errors, and references to drugs, alcohol, or outdated opinions that cast your character in a poor light.